January 24, 2013 at 10:30 am EDT | by WBadmin
Time to reconnect gay and AIDS communities
Dave Purdy, Washington Blade, gay news

Dave Purdy (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)


Last April I attended a White House LGBT Conference on HIV and AIDS, held at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. Following the meeting I posed a question to two leaders responsible for AIDS and LGBT issues in the White House:  “When did the gay community separate from the AIDS community?” At first, I think they were surprised. After all, the gay community created the AIDS community. But now they are going in different directions.

I asked a second question: “Do you think if the gay and AIDS communities worked as one, as they did in the ‘80s and early ‘90s during the height of the U.S. epidemic, we would improve the chances of winning the war against this dreaded disease?”

“Absolutely,” they replied.

What happened and when did the separation occur? And how can we bring them together again?

First, a little history. On Jan. 4, 1982, following the Centers for Disease Control’s confirmation that the “new disease” is an epidemic, six gay men met in the Manhattan apartment of Larry Kramer, the author and playwright, to discuss “gay cancer,” now known as Kaposi’s Sarcoma. That day they created the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first AIDS organization.

In a few years, GMHC was also supporting straight men and women, children, hemophiliacs, drug users and blood transfusion recipients. Kramer also helped establish another entity, ACT UP, to generate and build support for the rights of AIDS patients through political protest. As GMHC continued its work, I remember talking with people who actually wanted GMHC to remove the word “gay” from its name.

Prior to AIDS, there was GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). It was the Centers for Disease Control that changed the name to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), a more accurate description of the disease. Of course, we all knew retaining the word “gay” could hold down funding, research and support.

In the early days of the disease, hospital rules and state laws commonly denied gay men visits with their partners; in many cases, the families prevented contact, as well. Thus, thousands of AIDS-infected gay men died alone and many never received a proper burial.

It’s time to link gay and AIDS again. It was the gay community that created the AIDS community and, in many cases, it was the AIDS community that helped support and raise awareness of the gay community.

One example is GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), established in 1985 specifically to fight the stigma of AIDS and sensationalized reporting in the media. But will you find the word AIDS on the GLAAD website today? Rarely, as is the case for a number of our largest gay organizations.

The words gay and AIDS have been synonymous. Being a gay man and living with HIV in the United States definitely has its challenges, but they’re nothing compared with being gay and HIV positive in other parts of the world. In some countries, it’s common to be banished from your village or town, ostracized, or beaten and, in many cases, killed. Throughout the world, gay men with HIV are dying, not killed by AIDS, but murdered.

Before the 19th International AIDS Conference I discussed this separation of communities with staffers connected to one of the largest LGBT organizations. In addition to other issues, their responsibility includes HIV. When I asked how and when the separation occurred, they denied there was a problem. The gays have their issues and organizations, they pointed out, and those living with HIV and AIDS have theirs – it’s all covered.

Covered? Really? According to the CDC, young gay men and MSM account for 69 percent of all new HIV infections among persons aged 13–29. Also, the number of new infections in this country has never decreased. Never.

Every AIDS organization should have a division and point person whose sole focus is gay-related issues, and every gay organization should have an AIDS division and expert. That way, resources, ideas, and strategies can be shared, benefitting both communities, which could lead to the kind of power that could end AIDS and homophobia forever.

Dave Purdy is founder and CEO of the World AIDS Institute. Reach him at dpurdy@worldaidsinstitute.org.

  • Hello:
    Thank you for including Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in your article. We will post it on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

    Krishna Stone
    Communications Department – GMHC

  • I think that our focus on gay marriage as a culture is spot on.

    Gay men are starved for the sort of meaning that can come from committing in relationships and pursuing an active role in our society, and that means gay marriage, volunteer movements, careers, art. To put it crudely, we are worth more than our assholes.

    Casual sex is the link between gay men and AIDS. I say we break the link, not reinforce it. Encouraging monogamy, not just preaching it but really developing it, is going to be a significant long term investment for gay men.

    A little pro-gay rights conservativism could save us, so I say we stop allowing our loudest advocates to express hatred toward conservative ideals. Let's strike a middle ground here.

    • Thank you…. it might be a minority viewpoint, but as a gay man, I agree with you 100%. There’s a lot of shouting out there on other issues, including this one, but most gay men and women do not have HIV and probably won’t ever contract it. We are more likely to die of heart disease and cancer. Those are the facts. Yet, I don’t think we ever “disconnected.” I think that HIV and AIDS remains in the back of everyone’s mind, gay or straight, when it comes to sexual intercourse. What I don’t quite understand is what exactly constitutes the “gay community” and further to that, what is the “AIDS community”, and especially at what point and how is it perceived that some sort of separation occurred. Is it the amount of media attention given to the gay marriage cultural wars vs. this issue? That’s media. They focus on what’s hot and popular at the moment. Tomorrow, it’ll be a scandal in Congress. Is it the political agenda of certain “gay” organizations? Many of those groups have gone so far away from the everyday person, their interests are money and lobbying, not action. Is it statistics? Numbers can be twisted to make whatever point you’d like to make (sorry, I don’t think doing “quick tests” outside bathhouses and bars — read up on the studies to find out the most recent figures were obtained — accurately reflect HIV status much less a “community” at large.) I see that some people are angry and upset, and some of that is coming towards the “gay community,” but I still can’t understand what it is that they are angry about. I still find a great deal of compassion towards our friends and family with HIV, support for continuing research to fight this disease, and advocacy at large. We haven’t separated — but we’re no longer two distinct entities joining forces — we’re just people of this country, straight, gay, bi, trans, positive, negative, who press society to do what is right in all matters.

  • The split between the gay male community and HIV/AIDS was intentionally and, I think, mistakenly effected when primarily gay researchers in the 1980s decided to introduce the alternate identity of "MSM," for Men who have Sex with Men but who are not necessarily gay. Though I understand the impulse to want to separate disease from identity & tie it to behavior, I still cringe when I hear this term which covers out gay men as well as those who refuse to come out of the closet. I deeply resent this as I have witnessed how it allows guys on the down low to remain homophobic while enjoying the benefits of man on man sex. Rather than divorce HIV/AIDS from the identity that it was pinned to when still known as GRID, "MSM" as it is used has just created a new identity to pin it to. But it is an identity that NO ONE claims, not even those homophobic cocksuckers and butt fuckers who are not gay, nor are they Bisexual. They eschew such labels and demean those of us who are not afraid to embrace a gay identity and a gay community. But the term "MSM" persists because those who respond to studies that use it are more interesting to researchers because they because they serve as gatekeepers between the gay & straight communities, spreading the virus to the more populous & powerful heterosexual majority.

    • REALLY provocative and interesting point!

    • I'll go further. "Men having sex with men" was originally language used to described the route of acquiring HIV for an infected person; and at some time in the early 90s it was contorted into "men who have sex with men" as a demographic label. Gay men don't hear themselves counted under "MSM," and neither do other men who screw other men because they call themselves 'str8'. That was around the time that "HIV/AIDS," as if the two were synonymous, became widely used AND American policy makers began to reckon that the domestic plague might explode among heterosexuals here as it had in Africa over almost a century before (PLEASE, let's stop telling the story of HIV with the first CDC MMWR case reports as its nexus). As a result, HIV resources shifted to address the rising epidemic among American heterosexuals leaving even more adversely affected Queers behind. HIV organizations actively participated in this alignment of resources by pursuing such funding streams, even as the proportion of new infections attributable to homosex hardly budged.

    • exactly. It's a sordid history controlled & directed by the CDC & NIH funding streams that have forced us to put up with contortions of our identities in order to have our issues taken at all seriously. It's much worse for trans people who have to bow down to these prescribed categories that contradict their deepest feelings of identity in order to fit into the boxes where money may be eeked out to address all our specific physical, medical, mental & emotional needs.

  • There will be no striking of middle ground between conservative ideas and whatever you think is the opposite if sanctimonious conservative advocates like yourself continue to accuse the rest of us of “HATRED” toward your tired old ideas. Gay men are very much engaged in active roles in our society including volunteer movements, careers, ART! And we DO form long-term monogamous relationships – often lasting much longer than our straight, married counterparts. You are deluding yourself to think that marriage is the panacea for what comes from casual sex, including HIV/AIDS. Monogamy is not an exclusive straight thing – In fact just look at the divorce rate among heterosexuals, very often due to infidelity, to see what a lie it is that heteros are monogamous and we should emulate them. To put it crudely, we ARE worth more than our assholes – you just need to pull your head out of yours to really see what that really means!

  • Dave Purdy is spot on about the disconnect between the LGBT organizations–which owe their growth and prominence to the AIDS epidemic that brought so many gay men out of the closet, and so much money to the Human Rights Campaign and NGLTF.

    But as early as the 80s, as soon as they realized that “women and kids” played better in Washington, the LGBT groups began to “hand off” HIV/AIDS to the HIV/AIDS-focused lobbying groups. Even though those groups’ lobbyists were mainly gay and lesbian, their main interest was not gay/bi men.

    Today, as I have written about in my book VICTORY DEFERRED and in my own article in the Gay & Lesbian Review (“Reclaiming HIV as a ‘Gay’ Disease”, here: http://www.glreview.com/article.php?articleid=1449), HRC and NGLTF pay lip service to HIV/AIDS, but even a casual glance at NGLTF’s “Creating Change” conference program, and HRC’s federal priorities, shows that HIV/AIDS ranks far down their list of priorities.

    You have to look at who puts their money where their mouths are–and these two groups talk a lot about HIV/AIDS but have not been powerful voices for years. They are far more focused on same-sex marriage and, some might say, the effort to achieve suburban respectability.

    Meanwhile, young gay males–particularly African-American and Latino–are getting infected with HIV at astonishing rates. You don’t hear NGLTF or HRC calling for realistic, proportional prevention funding to target these young men, do you? You don’t hear them demanding an end of the pernicious 1987 “Helms Amendment” that tied federal prevention funding into knots by banning funding for programming that actually discusses sex–or tells young gay men how to protect themselves.

    If anyone ever wanted to see what racism and classism in gay America look like, just look at the funding priorities of HRC and NGLTF. You might conclude they talk a good game, but they aren’t walking the walk of justice where it comes to our own people–maybe because they are too young or poor or have the right skin tone–to matter to these organizations, really.

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2018. All rights reserved.
Blade Blast

Get the latest LGBTQ news to your inbox every Thursday!